Next Round

CITY PREPARES FOR NEXT PHASE OF MBCC FIGHT.

Whatever “alternatives” the Miami Beach City Commission and Administration may be considering in the wake of a District Court of Appeals ruling tossing off the November ballot an item intended to pave the way for master developer South Beach ACE (Tishman), it appears reopening the process to other potential developers is off the table – despite the second-place finisher being strongly preferred by the Administration, two evaluation committees and also offering a better financial deal for taxpayers.

But it’s also not out of the question.

At a Sept. 30 city commission “Meeting of the Whole,” a commission majority instructed City Manager Jimmy Morales to examine “alternatives” to the deal about to be negotiated with South Beach ACE, despite assurances from the Administration that the proposed master developer had many questions but was ready to move ahead. Other members of the commission also supported Morales examining “alternatives,” residents at the meeting cited Mayor Matti Bower as saying she would “change her vote” if need be, and Commissioner Ed Tobin reiterated his position that the City shouldn’t yet have decided between the two contending finalists.

But Bower said she did not mean to imply that the second-place finisher should somehow be reintroduced into the process.

“I did not say the process should be re-opened,” Bower told SunPost. “The timetable, however, has been changed by the Court order. The other alternatives may come back:  we will know more when the city manager makes his recommendations  to the City Commission on the [October] 16. The administration continues to have discussions with South Beach ACE, and we expect a report on those discussions at the October 16, 2013 City Commission meeting.”

Bower provided SunPost with documentation that South Beach ACE, headed by New York developer Tishman, was indeed committed to the process apparently and would make comment by the time of the final commission meeting before a November election that could change the face of the commission – and change the fate of South Beach ACE as well. The South Beach ACE team includes attorney Victor Diaz – although descriptions of his role change routinely and he has refused comment to SunPost — a close friend and ally of Bower since her several failed efforts in commission runs in the 1990s. He was also briefly a city commissioner alongside several current commission members, which has led many to wonder if politics wasn’t behind the commission decision in favor of the South Beach ACE team since its competitor, Portman, presented the better deal for the public.

A letter provided by another member of the Miami Beach City Commission from Bower reiterated her commitment to her friend’s development team.

Commissioner Michael Gongora, a mayoral candidate, said he does not think the $1 billion-plus Miami Beach Convention Center redevelopment plan should be opened back up other potential master developers.

“I cannot speak on behalf of Mayor Bower and I have not discussed this issue with her,” Gongora told SunPost. “I do not agree that the process should be re-opened.”

Gongora was also a strong supporter of South Beach ACE, the development group seemingly favored by Lincoln Road property owners. Meanwhile, major convention center figures and the planet’s largest trade show organizers largely supported the Portman team.

Gongora said the appellate court’s ruling favoring the successful Commissioner Jonah Wolfson-backed effort to remove the project approval language – vague as it was, from November’s ballots — is merely a complication.

“It has slowed the process but we are moving swiftly in the right direction to realize the project and begin reaping the benefits of the estimated $250 million in new tourist spending that the new convention center is anticipated to generate for Miami Beach,” said Gongora, who added he had not spoken to Tishman directly.

What exactly, then, the commission instruction to examine “alternatives” remains to be seen, although it is unlikely to interfere with the political aims of the commission. In Miami Beach, City Administrations rarely survive the expediency of elected officials, this is an election year, and if incumbents don’t sweep, South Beach ACE could find itself dealing with a commission far less interested in political expediency.

But regardless of what the estimable Morales brings back to the commission, key challenges rest ahead. One is a ballot item supported by the charismatic Wolfson’s team that would require a 60 percent public approval for long-term public space leases (which are required for the South Beach ACE proposal) and also an eventual item asking for the public to approve an eventual final deal – presumably but not necessarily South Beach ACE.

City authorities generally oppose the former proposal, which is on the November ballot, and support eventual approval of the renovation project. A vote of taxpayers is likely to result in a decision unfavorable to Miami Beach’s elite political class.

“As I have maintained throughout this process, it is ultimately the voters’ decision,” said Gongora, a favorite to supplant Matti Bower as mayor. “I anticipate support for the project since last year 67 percent of Miami Beach voters approved increasing hotel taxes an additional 1 percent to help pay for the renovated convention center. I generally am against increasing a vote to 60 percent on any item because it allows the minority to control the will of the majority and could have unintended consequences in the future.”

“I think it is a shame that one member of our commission works so hard against the will of the elected officials,” Bower said, squarely taking a shot at Wolfson, who clearly has strong public support.

While Miami Beach continues negotiations with South Beach ACE apparently at the exclusion of those with better offers for the public, mayoral candidate and entrepreneur Philip Levine leaves little wiggle room for his own opinions, which have better mirrored public perception so far this election season.

“The process has not changed; but if Mayor Bower believes that the process must be re-opened, then she and the other members of the commission that voted in favor of the South Beach ACE plan, are indirectly acknowledging that the process was flawed and tainted from the outset,” Levine said. “Contrary to what the mayor might or might not think, the project has not been delayed – it is on the same track as it was on July 17, when South Beach ACE was selected as the City’s development partner. As of now, the Resolution selecting South Beach ACE stands and the city manager is to continue negotiations with the private developer.  It is ludicrous to re-open the process when the terms of the lease have not been given to the public.”

Still, most authorities believe the public will eventually approve the convention center redevelopment plan.

“I believe the development will win approval if the terms of the lease are fair and beneficial to the taxpayers of Miami Beach,” Levine said. “Our elected officials are the stewards of our taxpayer dollars and shouldn’t be giving a blank check to a private developer.”

Bower and Gongora seem equally confident despite their difference in perspectives. “As I have maintained throughout this process, it is ultimately the voters’ decision,” Gongora said. “I anticipate support for the project since last year 67 percent of Miami Beach voters approved increasing hotel taxes an additional 1 percent to help pay for the renovated convention center. I generally am against increasing a vote to 60 percent on any item because it allows the minority to control the will of the majority and could have unintended consequences in the future.”

“I see this change in timing as an opportunity to better educate the residents on the merits and value of the plan negotiated by the city commission and to combat the miss-information that is out there about the convention center,” added Bower. “We must work together to ensure the viability of our legacy convention center facility as the prime engine of the South Florida economy.”

With changes coming to the Miami Beach City Commission in November’s election, however, the fate of the long-planned project and its politically-connected master developer, remains, at the very least, in question.

About Michael W Sasser

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